The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Aniki-Bóbó.
Set in the director’s hometown of Porto, Portugal, Aniki-Bóbó features a romantic rivalry amongst a group of young, school-age children. Eduardinho, an unofficial leader and bully to a band of his classmates, has affection for Teresinha, a pretty girl who begins noticing the interest of a shy boy named Carlitos. When Carlitos steals a doll for Teresinha and is accused of pushing Eduardinho off an embankment and toward an oncoming train, the youngster must negotiate feelings of guilt, betrayal, and persecution. Manoel de Oliviera’s first feature film was a commercial failure on its initial release, but has become regarded as a classic work in Portuguese cinema, a forerunner to Italian neorealism, and an inspiration to generations of Portuguese filmmakers.
- Restored high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- A new piece about Manoel de Oliveira’s first career in cinema with scholar Randal Johnson
- A pair of city symphonies by de Oliveira on Porto – Labor on the Douro River (1931) and The Artist and the City (1956)
- Excerpt from Sergio Andrade’s documentary Manoel de Oliveira: His Case, featuring interviews with de Oliveira and actors Fernanda Matos and Horácio Silva
- Manoel de Oliveira and the Age of Cinema, a short documentary made for Portuguese television on the filmmaker
- PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Dennis Lim and a reprint of Aniki-Bóbó‘s source story, José Rodrigues de Freitas’ Millionaire Children
Scheduled to screen at the Lincoln Center in February are rarely shown 35mm prints of Manoel de Oliveira’s Tetralogy of Frustrated Love – Past and Present (1972), Benilde, or the Virgin Mother (1975), Doomed Love (1979), and Francisca (1981) – four films that launched the Portuguese director to international acclaim and kept him an active filmmaker to his death in 2015 at the age of 106. MMC! hopes that these screenings might suggest the possibility of the Tetralogy finding release on hard media (perhaps with a wacky “C” attached) and it brings to mind de Oliveira’s first career in film that lasted from the late 1920s until the early 1940s. He made only one feature during this period – Aniki-Bóbó (1942) – and while the film was a commercial failure derided by Portuguese critics, it has since become recognized as a landmark film in Portuguese cinema. Manoel de Oliveira is certainly a filmmaker deserving of a place within the Criterion Collection, and with many films made over the last 50 years worthy of attention, MMC! goes back 75 years to the town of Porto, where it all began for Portugal’s elder cinematic statesman.
Aniki-Bóbó centres around a group of poor youngsters in Porto, Portugal, who happily play hooky from school and their domineering teacher (Vital dos Santos). In the narrow cobblestone streets and working ports of the city’s riverside district they play games (“Aniki-Bóbó” being a line from a children’s rhyme comparable to “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe”), dodge policemen, and frequent The Shop of Temptations, a general store run by a clever and fair-minded shopkeeper (Nascimento Fernandes). Eduardinho (António Santos) is the group’s bullying leader, a braggart with eyes for the fair Teresinha (Fernanda Matos). Carlitos (Horácio Silva) is a reserved boy whose affection for Teresinha and ability to occasionally draw some fondness from her raises the ire of Eduardinho, making him the target of the bully’s abuse. Carlitos’ situation becomes complicated when he steals a doll from the shopkeeper and feels guilt over the act, when he gives the doll to Teresinha and is further bullied by Eduardinho for the attention given by the girl, and when he is ostracized from the group when wrongly accused of pushing Eduardinho down an embankment and toward an oncoming train, injuring the boy. With the shopkeeper as the only witness to the incident, a just ending to Aniki-Bóbó depends on the conscience of Carlitos and the sympathy of the shop owner.
Filmmaking was by no means easy in Portugal during the 1930s and 1940s. Less than three feature films a year got made on average and those that did were typically conservative fare like historical dramas, literary adaptations, urban comedies, and reflections on rural life. The cinema of this period conformed to the repressive and moralistic dictatorship of António Salazar. Manoel de Oliveira got his start in movies as an actor but was inspired to become a filmmaker upon seeing Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927), making a variety of short films through the 1930s that included some city symphonies of his own. Aniki-Bóbó was de Oliveira’s first feature film and its reception was sufficiently poor to keep him away from the camera for more than a decade. Looking at the film today, it might be difficult to see Aniki-Bóbó‘s controversy but his treatment of children as being far from innocent met with great opposition and his subtle criticisms of authority (note the limited role of adults in the film, their disinterest or irritation, and their lack of identified names) no doubt contributed to his loss of state-funding. Still, during de Oliveira’s temporary exile from cinema, his work became embraced by Portuguese cinema clubs and he developed a reputation as the country’s greatest director. de Oliveira’s return to filmmaking in the 1950s was an inspiration to the young Novo Cinema directors who would challenge the mediocrity of Portuguese genre cinema and explore the artistic possibilities of the medium as de Oliviera did two decades earlier (and for six decades more).
Aniki-Bóbó is often considered as emulating the poetic realism of the 1930s with its working class environments and tragically romantic conflicts, while anticipating the neorealism movement of the 1940s and ’50s by its working class environments and tragically romantic conflicts. Porto, de Oliveira’s hometown, figures prominently in the film, particularly its riverside neighbourhoods, and the film functions as a significant document of the community and an important statement on lower class Portugal as a meritorious and artistically fruitful subject for cinematic consideration. It is in Aniki-Bóbó‘s nighttime sequences where de Oliveira’s cinematic artistry is most explicitly revealed. During the boys’ game of cops and robbers through the expressionistically lit streets of Porto, Carlitos’ late night journey across the neighbourhood’s roofs to deliver the doll to Teresinha, and even during Carlitos’ anxious dream over his theft of the doll and the accusations over Edhuarinho’s fall, Aniki-Bóbó comes to life with cinematic potential, shifting from realist documentation into a stylized assertion of child-like imagination.
With only Pedro Costa currently representing Portugal in the Collection, it seems only natural that Manoel de Oliveira’s more than 80 years of celebrated filmmaking would be a natural next step for Criterion to reconsider Portuguese cinema. While later films by de Oliveira may show the director in greater command of the art form and more sophisticated in his approach, Aniki-Bóbó stands as the high point of de Oliveira’s first career in cinema and a key work in the evolution of the nation’s film culture, making it a deserving title for a wacky “C.” Rich Tommaso’s indie comic style, reminiscent of favourite Criterion Collection cover artists like Jaime Hernandez and Daniel Clowes, would naturally fit with the impoverished, urban setting and the nighttime expressionism of Aniki-Bóbó, making him our choice for a packaging illustration.
Credits: This proposed Criterion treatment includes two city symphonies of Porto – de Oliveira’s first film, Labor on the Douro River, and his return to filmmaking, The Artist and the City – and these shorts contrast nicely in form (black and white vs. colour), pace (the bustle of labourers vs. the observation of a painter working in watercolours), and time (1931 vs. 1956). The pair of television documentaries included with this proposed edition do exist and appear informative, although I must admit to having seen them without subtitling. We chose Randal Johnson to provide a visual essay based on his consideration of Aniki-Bóbó in Alberto Mira’s The Cinema of Spain and Portugal, while Criterion favourite Dennis Lim was chosen to provide a booklet essay based on his writing on de Oliviera for The New York Times and with his work at the Lincoln Center. This proposals also indebted to Anthony De Melo’s Masters Thesis, “Cinema Novo Português / The New Portuguese Cinema: 1963 – 1967.”